October 20, 1977
JACK CLEARY is quite right. The Puget Sound Naval
Shipyard, the Navy itself and the federal government as a whole have not adequately addressed the very crucial subject of the peril of asbestos. And it is high time the problem was considered, because it is a matter of life and death.
Cleary is the president of the Bremerton Metal Trades Council. He has taken the opportunity presented him this week to again focus the spotlight on the asbestos danger. The opportunity came when the health research group founded by Ralph Nader, Public Citizen, urged the Navy to get off the dime and do something about asbestos poisoning.
Exposure to asbestos can cause cancer. It also can cause diseases of the lung. Asbestos-caused cancer is invariably fatal. Lung diseases also can be fatal, although more often they are crippling, forcing the patient to restrict activities to a great extent.
So the subject is, indeed, a life and death one.
Why, then, does the Navy hesitate? Why is a branch of our armed services, dedicated to protecting Americans from all sorts of dangers, so unwilling to fully acknowledge so obvious an enemy as asbestos? It simply doesn't make any sense for the Navy to say it needs more time to study the ''possible" adverse effects.
PUBLIC CITIZEN pointed out in its latest outcry against asbestos that during the early '40s, when the United States was gearing up, then catching up and finally keeping up to wage World War II, some four and a half million persons were working in shipyards. Many of those received "intensive exposure to asbestos used in ship construction."
No one seems to quarrel with that figure. It is, however, important to note that the consequences of continued exposure to asbestos were not recognized during the early '40s. It is not as though the Navy - or private operators of shipyards - deliberately exposed their workers to the dangers.
That doesn't relieve the Navy and the shipyard operators from all liability, of course. It's quite likely there is a moral obligation to pay workmen's compensation' to those disabled by asbestos exposure. But it was ignorance of the danger in those cases.
Since the mid-'50s, though, it has been a case of ignoring a danger documented by careful studies. That's a whole different ball of wax. It took until 1972 for a government agency, in this case, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, to acknowledge the peril and establish federal safety standards - and until 1976 for the Navy to determine that possibly it shouldn't be using asbestos in shipbuilding anymore. Bureaucracies work slowly, yes, but this borders on the ridiculous. What's more, it borders on deliberate negligence.
And to this day, the Navy seems intent on pooh-poohing the asbestos affair. Attempts to get answers to questions are sloughed off by senior officers: throughout the Navy Department. Anyone who persists is finally referred to a glib lieutenant it the Navy News Desk in Washington who says the Navy is still studying the possibility of adverse effects.
That will not do. The adverse effects do not need any more study. What are necessary are assurances that the asbestos dangers are recognized, that 'workers' interests and health are being protected, that those already exposed are being treated and compensated if infected or are under medical surveillance if so far unaffected, and that asbestos is outlawed completely in all future shipbuilding.
AMERICANS GENERALLY are a patient and forgiving people with an abiding faith in those to whom they entrust their well being. Most, even those who have lost loved ones to asbestos-related diseases or who have relatives disabled by them, would be able to find some satisfaction and contentment if steps were being taken to eliminate the dangers. But we are in to stonewalling again. There's a concerted effort to buy time and hope that the crisis will pass.
Jack Cleary has a right to be angry. A lot of other people do, too. There are too many lives on the line.